Summer is here and my thoughts run immediately to the sunny shores of the Greek islands. Because where else would you find that perfect mix of sandy beaches, stunning blue water, scrumptious food, and history-packed places? And while Eastern Crete is not as popular as its Western part or other Greek islands, it is the perfect destination for those looking to escape the crowds.
Sure, Crete might not be as popular as Santorini or Mykonos, but it is, after all, Greece’s largest island. With plenty to explore, I don’t think you could see every important attraction on this island in just one week.
However, if you don’t have more time, and want to see some beautiful places while still getting to chill by the sea, Eastern Crete is the place for you. We also wanted to escape the crowds, and stay in a boutique hotel and hidden authentic Greek town.
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But before we get started, here are a few of my top tips for anyone planning a Greek vacation:
Book your flight by checking Skyscanner.com – this is an online aggregator that will show you all the best combinations and will help you optimize prices and timetables.
Discover Cars is a great aggregator that will help you find and book the best option for renting a car during your trip, helping you save up to 70% on your car rental. They have a pretty good Cancellation policy that would give you options in case your flight or travel plans change. Choose the best price here!
Day trips and experiences can be easily booked through GetYourGuide – they have a wide selection of tours and a great cancellation policy that will offer you a full refund if you cancel up to 24 hours before the tour. Explore perfect tours here!
Where to stay in Eastern Crete
While most of the people visiting Crete choose to stay in more popular places such as Heraklion, Rethymno, and everything in between, we wanted to be further away from the crowds.
Even though that placed us far away from popular destinations such as the Balos Lagoon or the colorful streets of Rethymno, we chose to stay in Elounda.
As the guide picked us up from the airport, he told us Elounda is one of the fanciest resorts on Crete island. Even though we weren’t looking for that in particular, we were happy to discover this little hidden gem.
I would highly recommend staying in Elounda if you want to visit Eastern Crete, mainly because it is a small town with a central square packed with shops and terraces. Additionally, it has some nice beaches nearby, plenty of restaurants on the seafront with crazy delicious Greek food, and here is where you’ll find plenty of boutique hotels with breathtaking views.
Stunning hotels or apartments I recommend in Elounda:
Elounda Orama – this is where we stayed during our week in Crete and we absolutely loved it. Perched on a hill with direct access to the main road leading to the center of the village, the hotel boasts a great rooftop swimming pool and rooms with views for days. What I’ve loved most was having breakfast and dinner in their rooftop restaurant, with neverending blues under your eyes.
The rooms were very comfortable, with a nice modern Greek design, and the food was great.
Adrakos Apartments – the hotel is located between Elounda and Agios Nikolaos, high on the hills overlooking Spinalonga and the Elounda Bay, thus offering incredible views. It is a family-run hotel highly rated by couples staying here, mainly for the romantic vibe, but also for the beautiful swimming pool, and friendliness of the staff.
Blue Palace, a Luxury Collection Resort and Spa – an incredibly luxurious hotel with lots of rooms overlooking the sea and Spinalonga island, some boasting small private infinity pools. Come here to be blown away by the award-winning cuisine and a state-of-the-art spa – a 2,000-m² area that features indoor pools, 24 treatment rooms, 2 hammams, saunas, and hot tubs.
How to get to Eastern Crete
As Greece’s largest island, you would imagine Crete would be served by more than one airport. As a matter a fact, that’s indeed true, and you can choose to fly into Crete at one of the island’s 4 airports.
However, 2 of them are the most popular ones, with plenty of flights both from Athens and from other parts of Europe especially during the summer season. Chania and Heraklion airports are both located in the northern part of the island, but you might want to know which one should you choose if you want to visit Eastern Crete.
The answer is simple: for Eastern Crete, choose to fly into Heraklion Airport.
Getting around Eastern Crete
The easiest way to get around Crete if you want to make the best out of your vacation and see everything on this list and more is to rent a car.
Driving around Crete might be a bit challenging in the beginning, mainly because of the narrow streets, but also because people tend to drive a bit hectic. However, you’ll get used to it and I recommend getting a small car, one that could be easily parked and could fit through the narrowest streets.
We got a Volkswagen Up which was great for wandering around the island, even though I was dreaming of a convertible Mini or Fiat 500. Since we hadn’t booked ahead of time, my dream options were not available.
Thus you might want to learn from my mistakes and book ahead of time, online. That way you’ll secure the model you want, but also at a lower price.
Discover Cars is a great aggregator that will help you find and book the best option for your trip, helping you save up to 70% on your car rental.
What to do and see in Eastern Crete
Even though in one-week chances are you won’t get to see the stunning Balos Lagoon or the famous pink sand beach is Elafonisi in the Westerner part of Crete. You’ll have to skip seeing the white houses of Loutro, and the colorful streets of Chania.
On the other hand, we got to explore a less popular part of Crete. One that didn’t disappoint at all. And we have a good reason to get back to the island for some more exploration.
I won’t lie to you, this is an arid island and if you go there, as we did, on a hot August day, you’ll need to bring plenty of water along.
Only less than 30 minutes away by boat from Elounda, the island of Spinalonga stands proof of the history this island bears. Because of its strategic location, the island has been fortified and had played many roles throughout the years.
The fortress dates from 1579 and has been built by the Venetians on the ruins of an ancient acropolis. They managed to keep control of it for almost half of century after Crete has fallen under the Ottomans.
Later on, this is where lepers from all over Greece were kept in isolation.
Nowadays, you can visit the island by boat and take on the immense blue surrounding it.
Take a road trip on the Lassithi Plateau
As soon as you start driving on the winding roads and lose track of the sea, you’ll forget you’re on an island. Even though the number of kilometers is not that big, the road makes it time-consuming, but you’ll enjoy the view that lays before your eyes.
The main attraction apart from nature and the 18 picturesque villages of the area, are the windmills with white cloths. We climbed from sea level all the way to 800 m and explored some lakes, Zeus’s Cave, some of the small villages with colorful flowers.
If you don’t feel like driving on the winding roads of this area, I suggest booking a tour to the Lassithi Plateau with options from Ierapetra or from Agios Nikolaos.
At the top, we stopped for lunch and enjoyed true Cretan food with a view.
Here are some other stunning places for nature lovers you’ll want to get to if you want to spend some time exploring the natural beauty of Crete:
- Havgas Gorge – is such a picture-perfect location.
- Go on a hike to Samaria Gorge from Agios Nikolaos. See more here!
- Katharo Plateau and Sarakina Gorge on an SUV Tour – See more here!
- Hike through nature and follow a path that the Minoans created thousands of years ago on the Kavolisi Hike
Chrissi island day trip from Ierapetra
Now you have 2 choices when it comes to getting from Elounda or Agios Nikolaos to Chrissi Island:
- self drive to the city of Ierapetra and book a boat trip to Chrissi Island – that’s what we did and it was such a nightmare to find a parking space in Ierapetra, and once we did, it was a bit hard to find the place where the boat was leaving from. By the time we managed to find it and buy a ticket, the boat left and we had to wait another few hours around until the next boat.
- book a whole day trip from Agios Nikolaos to Chrissi Island – you won’t have to worry about parking in Ierapetra or boat timetables. This option is more efficient and leaves you more time on the island.
When it comes to the island itself, there isn’t that much to do here except relax on the beach and swim in the deep turquoise waters.
As soon as we approached the island, the water started to look like in the Caribbean and I couldn’t stop taking pictures, that wouldn’t make true justice to this sight.
I would encourage you not to stop at the first beach, where to boat leaves you, and where you’ll find the bar/restaurant. The water on the other side of the island is so much bluer and the beach sandier.
You’ll have the opportunity to rent sunbeds and umbrellas so that you can hide from the sun at noon. Just sit down and someone will come and charge you.
Knossos Palace in Heraklion
No matter where you choose to stay in Crete, Knossos Palace is one of the must-see attractions, and you can find here plenty of organized tours you can choose from.
If, however, you choose to drive yourself all the way to Heraklion – as we did – it is worth booking in advance a skip-the-line ticket together with a guide that will tell you the story of this magnificent place. With the same ticket, you’ll be able to visit also the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
Because it was pretty hot outside, the pretty photogenic orange juice stand right by the entrance offered not only a chance for a nice picture but also a refreshing drink.
Knossos Palace is dating from the Bronze Age and you will step back in time to more than 3500 years ago. It is considered to be Europe’s oldest city, and you can imagine what this whole place looked like back then: mystifying sanctuaries, luxurious domestic quarters of the royal family, and the imposing throne of ‘’Minos”.
Take a day trip to Santorini island
Even though I absolutely love Santorini, I would urge you to spend at least one night there and see the most famous sunset over the caldera. After all, we spent one week in Santorini and I would go back anytime.
If however, you are on the run, a day trip from Crete could be enough for you to see the best places on the small island.
The high-speed luxury boat will take you to Santorini in 2.5 hours, you’ll get to tour the island by bus and see both Oia and Fira – Santorini’s gem towns, perfect for a postcard picture. You’ll get to see the sunset from the boat, on your way back to Crete.
Taste some local Cretan wine
Hop on a wine discovery and visit 3 of the best local wineries in Crete. Have a sommelier help you understand the differences between wines and what each goes well with.
Explore the different beaches around Elounda
Sure, some of the big luxury hotels in the area have their own private beach, but that’s not all when it comes to Eastern Crete.
Apart from the beach a few steps away from the city center of Elounda, here are a few others you should see:
- Schisma – a sandy beach with palm trees
- Plaka – a pebble beach
- Driros Beach – is one of the best in the area
- Vai Beach – with a palm trees forest
- Istro Beach – the golden sand and beach umbrellas
- Agia Fotia – on the edge of a pine tree forest
- Sissi Beach – surrounded by taverns with fresh fish
Dive into nature – gorges
Hike some of the most popular gorges in Crete: Zakros, Pefki, Katsounaki Gorge, Chochlakies Gorge, and many others.
Indulge in some local Cretan traditional food
Ok, I must start by saying we are obsessed with Greek food. So much so, that I cannot remember one vacation when we didn’t eat so much that we felt sick. This one included.
The pictures above were our first lunch in Crete and we wanted to try it all. That’s a portion for 2 persons, so make sure you know what to expect when you order food in Greece.
Prices in Elounda are not so cheap as in other parts of Crete, or Greece for that matter. However, the food is delicious, the fish is fresh, and there is a wide variety of picturesque seafront restaurants to choose from.
Further away destinations for your Crete itinerary
If you have more time to spend on the island you might want to move somewhere on the Westerner side, in order not to waste so much time on the road daily.
Don’t miss out on:
- A day trip to Elafonisi Island
- A boat cruise to Balos Lagoon and Gramvousa
- Dia island for snorkeling, fishing, and relaxation on the beach
- Explore Chania Old City
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